Soft skills improvement

Top five soft skills gaps and how to overcome them

Despite the importance of soft skills, many still struggle with them, and everyone has room to grow.

Soft skills are one of the hottest topics in the human resource and business community today and rightly so, since mastery of them increases the chance for professional success. If you want to grow professionally, improving your soft skills is the first place to start.

Here are five of the most common soft skill gaps and how you can overcome them:


Self-awareness is the ability to understand, identify and leverage one’s own strengths, weaknesses, thoughts and emotions. It is critical to individual success, especially in leadership roles. In fact, the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council recently rated self-awareness as the most important competency for leaders to develop.

Still, in a study of 500,000 people, only 36 percent could accurately describe their emotions, proving this is an area in which many people need help.

To improve your own self-awareness, try these actions:

  • Reflect. You must periodically set aside time for self-evaluation and reflection. Many people have difficulty with this, so it may take extra effort to form a habit of it. As soft-skills expert Bruce Tulgan says, it’s important to have “regular, productive, honest self-evaluation against clear standards.” This can be done through journaling or other reflection activities, such as goal-setting or discussion.
  • Assess. Another great way to increase self-awareness is through the use of assessments, which can give you an objective view of yourself. Self-assessments such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® and DiSC® test can provide a starting point for self-evaluation, but you will also need input from others. This could mean a performance evaluation from a manager or, even better, a 360-degree assessment that gathers anonymous feedback from a number of sources, such as managers, peers, direct reports and clients.
  • Measure. Are you accomplishing your work goals? Your personal goals? How do you compare to the rest of your organization? You need to honestly assess how you are doing, rather than see yourself through rose-colored glasses.

Personal responsibility

Personal responsibility is the ability to stay focused on what can be controlled. Many times, lower or mid-level employees have a defeatist attitude that leads to a lack of personal responsibility – they feel what they do ultimately doesn’t matter because the “higher ups” control their fate. If this might be true for you, try the following:

  • Read. Stephen Covey’s classic, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” is a good resource on the concept of personal responsibility. Understanding that you should focus on what you can influence as opposed to what is out of your control (Habit 1) can help get you in the right frame of mind and empower you.
  • Reflect. Brainstorm all the factors that get in the way of your ability to do your job at the highest level (or how you would like to do the job), then look at each factor and ask yourself, “Is this within or outside of my control?” Take note of how many are in each category. Finally, look at each factor and think about past examples of how it has gotten in the way. What could have been done differently? Now think about the future – how might it get in the way? What options do you have to change that outcome?

Empathy, listening and keeping an open mind

Empathy is the ability to understand what others are thinking and feeling; listening is a skill that requires paying full attention to others in a conversation; and keeping an open mind requires you to question your own assumptions, suspend judgment and learn from others. While all of these are distinct abilities, they all revolve around paying attention to others and valuing them and their opinions at least as highly as your own. If you are bad at one of these areas, you are usually bad at all three.

To grow in these areas, try the following:

  • Learn. If you find it difficult to accept other perspectives, purposefully set out to learn about views that differ from your own through actions like reading books and/or developing relationships with people who believe differently than you do.
  • Brainstorm. Write down five things you feel certain about, then answer these two questions: What is another belief about that topic? Why might someone believe that? List several reasons.
  • Practice. Practice your listening skills by asking questions to better understand. During this time, resist the urge to spend your time only thinking of responses or just waiting for your turn to talk.

Conflict resolution

Conflict resolution is an often-misunderstood soft skill. It’s not just the ability to deal with conflict but also the ability to handle conflict when necessary. Some people tend to be conflict-averse – never willing to deal with a difficult issue, even when it is needed. On the other end of the spectrum, some people are too willing to engage in conflict and might need to learn to back off.

To improve your conflict-resolution skills, try the following:

  • Understand. You must first understand your tendency for conflict. Once again, a personality assessment could help you better understand your usual reaction to conflict. Once you know what you tend to do in a situation, you can develop an action plan to better align your conflict style with that necessary for your job.
  • Read. A good resource for improving this skill is a book called “Fierce Conversations” by Susan Scott (especially for those who are conflict-averse).

Communication/people skills

In today’s economy, many – if not most – jobs require people skills. You must read other people, develop a rapport with them and effectively communicate your message in a way that will be well-received. This includes effectively using words, tone and expressions to communicate.

To improve your communication and people skills, try the following:

  • Assess. This is another area where self-assessment can help you better understand your strengths and weaknesses. Feedback from others can also be helpful, as well as utilizing a simple rating exercise: list some communication best practices (e.g., don’t interrupt, listen twice as much as you talk, use the correct channel of communication etc.) and then give yourself a grade for each best practice. You can then create an action plan for improving communication in your problem areas.
  • Plan. A big part of good communication is preparation, so it can be beneficial to understand how you should prepare. Ask yourself: What message am I trying to get across? Who do I need to be talking to? About what? Through what communication channel?
  • Practice. If you’re not already comfortable communicating with others, it’s important to practice and gain more confidence. Volunteer to present to groups. Go to a networking event with a friend. Eat lunch in the break room instead of at your desk. Practice makes progress!

In summary

Like any skill, better soft skills are possible with time, training and practice. In fact, smart professionals realize this is an area that needs continual nurturing and effort throughout their careers. The good news is that your efforts can help build better relationships with others, increase your productivity and help you feel more satisfied – all worthwhile goals that benefit you, your employer and others in your professional and personal life.

Contact Daniel White using the information below to learn more about soft skill gaps and how to overcome them.

Daniel White

Vice President
Org. Development & Family Business Services

Daniel White assists organizations with their organizational development needs, including strategic and operational planning, leadership development, succession and exit planning, and family business advising. He has worked with a wide range of industries, including construction, healthcare, manufacturing, banking, not-for-profits, and government organizations. He has also worked internationally as an organizational development consultant, serving organizations in Bolivia, Guatemala and Ghana. Prior to advising organizations, he worked in not-for-profit leadership and operations, directing projects with clients such as the US Department of State and the United Nations Population Fund.

Daniel serves as associate director of the Kansas Family Business Forum, hosted by Wichita State University’s Center for Entrepreneurship. He holds a certificate in Family Business Advising from The Family Firm Institute. Daniel also earned his Certified Exit Planner designation from BEI. This designation demonstrates he is qualified to provide comprehensive, professionally executed exit planning services. He has been published in Fast Company and several academic journals, and he has presented at a number of national conferences.

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